In the NBA world right now, everybody is doing what they can to stay entertained. We’re tuning into The Last Dance every Sunday. We’re squeezing every detail we can get out of this supposed rift in Utah right now between Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. We’re trying to figure out what’s the aptest solution for this current season when this quarantine ends. All of this confirms that we are going through our worst nightmare as hoop junkies: An NBA drought.
Since we can’t analyze anything currently game-wise, we can only analyze the past. One enjoyable pastime is analyzing previous iterations of the NBA Draft. Today, we’re going to be looking at one of the most hyped-up draft classes of all-time, the 2014 NBA Draft.
Knowing what we know now, that sounds preposterous– but back in 2014, the anticipation surrounding the 2014 class was unmistakably high. Before the start of the season, the consensus was that two game-changers – Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker – were about to enter the league. Well, until another phenom from Kansas that went by the name of Joel Embiid demonstrated that he too was a can’t-miss talent. Not to mention the tier of young talent below them – Aaron Gordon, Dante Exum and Marcus Smart – wasn’t too shabby.
Many teams in the NBA took notice and punted that season in hopes of getting one of the elite prospects. Teams like Philadelphia, Boston, Orlando and Utah made the necessary adjustments to put themselves in a position to get a top prospect before the season started. Other teams like Milwaukee, Cleveland, Sacramento and the Lakers weren’t originally intending to do the same at the start of the season but, inadvertently, they ended up in the running.
It’s been almost six years since this supposed-juggernaut of a draft took place, so how do we look back on it now? Well, it’s a mixed bag, to say the least. A fair amount of fantastic players came from this draft. They just weren’t the ones who we expected to be fantastic back in 2014. Yeah, it’s complicated. The best way to approach this is by examining in this way:
A. The Hits – the players that panned out
B. The Misses – the players that did not pan out
C. The Sleepers – the players that exceeded minimal expectations
D. Jury Is Out – those that have shown flashes
Joel Embiid, No. 3
His debut was delayed more than any fanbase would like, but he was well worth the wait. Embiid is a franchise center – and on both ends of the floor, he remains the focal point for teams to stop. Still, there are some causes for concern. He has regressed a little this season. His durability in the postseason still remains in question until he proves otherwise. His fit with Ben Simmons is as clunky as ever, but Embiid has lived up to his billing as a game-changer.
If Philadelphia is able to recoup the shooting it once had with JJ Redick, Embiid’s production should launch to MVP-worthy levels for years to come.
Marcus Smart, No. 6
When you look at Smart’s stats, you likely won’t be wowed by what he has done as the sixth overall pick. But, watching him on the court, it’s easy to see the impact he has on the Celtics. He’s a pest. He’s a hustler. He’ll throw his body in harm’s way to make a winning play. He’s spearheaded the Celtics’ winning culture. There’s a reason why he’s only one of three players selected in this draft’s lottery that has stuck with his original team. For that, he’s a hit.
Zach LaVine, No. 13
LaVine’s a scorer, he’s shown that much both in Minnesota and Chicago. There’s only one thing holding him back from being a full-on All-Star. He has yet to prove he can produce that well for a good team. As good as he is scoring-wise from just about anywhere on the court, his defense negates pretty much all of it. Now that new management has taken over with the Bulls organization, LaVine will get another shot to prove he’s more than an empty-calorie scorer.
Jusuf Nurkic, No. 16
It is difficult to pan out and not and be on your original team just because the other player selected by the same team in the same draft also happens to play the same position – worst of all, that late-second-rounder turned into one of the best players in this draft. There’s a reason why Portland’s defense went right into the basement this season. They miss the all-around game Nurkic brings as a center. If Portland has a resurgence next year, the big-man enforcer will have a lot to do with it.
TJ Warren, No. 14
Last year, Warren was in the same boat as Zach LaVine. He’s proven that he can score the basketball, but we had yet to see if those numbers were effective. Now that he’s gone through a change of scenery in Indiana, we can now see that, yes, Warren’s offensive production can benefit a good team. Even with seemingly more offensive talent around him in Indiana, his numbers have managed to stay the same. Through that, he’s justified his selection.
Jabari Parker, No. 2
It’s hard to give Jabari this label because fate dealt him a cruel hand on multiple occasions. Tearing the same ACL twice in almost two years certainly stunted his growth as a player. The bigger problem is that he was slated to be a superstar dating back to his days as a high schooler. Young superstars don’t get tossed around five times over the last two years. They also don’t become internet memes when they show a lack of interest in playing defense. There’s still time for Parker to carve out a Corey Maggette-like career for himself. For a No. 2 overall pick that was expected to run the NBA, yikes.
Dante Exum, No. 5
Along with the same unlucky injury history as Parker, Exum, sadly, has suffered just the same. He’s been through the wringer since entering the league. He’s torn his ACL, dislocated his shoulder, torn his patella tendon and sprained his ankle a million and one times since his rookie year. The injuries have cast a shadow over his career – but even when he’s on the floor, he still hasn’t shown enough to justify his selection.
Nik Stauskas, No. 8
Stauskas was picked eighth in the lottery because he was supposed to be a sharpshooter. Well, since the very beginning, he bounced from team to team all while never really bringing his supposed sharpshooting on an NBA level. His career splits shooting 39/35/81 from the field justify why Stauskas has been out of the league since 2019.
Noah Vonleh, No. 9
Even though Vonleh vaults himself ahead of Stauskas because he’s still technically in the NBA, the big man is also a career journeyman. He’s been on six teams since coming to the NBA. Outside of one decent year on a throwaway New York Knicks team, Vonleh’s been largely unimpressive as a whole. You’d expect more from the ninth overall pick.
So, something needs to be made clear here: The 2014 draft had a lot of sleepers. For all the guys who have disappointed, there were plenty of them that exceeded expectations. Diving into all of them would take forever, so let’s first give a little shoutout to those who excelled, but not as much as the one winner that takes the cake.
Gary Harris, No. 19
Rodney Hood, No. 23
Bogdan Bogdanovic, No. 27
Kyle Anderson, No. 30
Joe Harris, No. 33
Jerami Grant, No. 39
Dwight Powell, No. 45
And then, of course…
Nikola Jokic, No. 41
The most obvious pick of the group. Jokic isn’t going to be the poster boy for Men’s Health magazine anytime soon, but he is the most skilled big in the game right now. You know about his expert passing. You know about his finesse around the basket. You know about how he can take over a game at any moment. What you don’t know is that, despite his doughy physique, he’s actually quite underrated as a defender. Since his ascent, Denver’s been right around the top of the west. That’s downright amazing for a late draft pick.
Clint Capela, No. 25
When you play so well that James Harden wants to bench Dwight Howard in favor of you, then you’ve exceeded expectations. Capela fits the mold as the prototypical big in today’s NBA. He blocks shots, rebounds, runs the pick-and-roll as well as anyone and doesn’t need the ball in his hands to make an impact. Atlanta will be a different situation from Houston, but as long as his injury issues are a thing of the past, he’ll be a big help to them.
Spencer Dinwiddie, No. 38
Like Harris, Dinwiddie has played an instrumental role in reviving Brooklyn as a franchise. His emergence came later than some of the others mentioned in this category – still, he’s averaging 20/7/3 on a playoff team while on a bargain contract. With Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving coming back next season, his role will decrease but Brooklyn has to take pride in that they have a great complimentary piece to put next to them.
Jordan Clarkson, No. 46
The reason why Clarkson deserves more elaboration than the other sleepers on this list is that he was the first one in this draft to emerge as a steal. Since he entered the league, Clarkson has shown an ability to be a spark plug off the bench. Better yet, before his trade to Utah this season, his effectiveness was always in question, but not anymore. He’s been one of their more positive subplots in a season rooted in dysfunction. For that, he has solidified himself as a prominent sleeper.
Jury Is Still Out
Julius Randle, No. 7
The aforementioned issue with LaVine is the same for Randle. Randle has absolutely proven that he can score the basketball – he just hasn’t been able to do that with a playoff team. The closest he came was with the Lakers during his last year in Los Angeles. The only way to see if Randle is a hit is if he, at long last, makes a playoff team.
Aaron Gordon, No. 4
Unlike Randle, Gordon can say that he has contributed to a good team. However, every year like clockwork, Air Gordon been slated for a breakout, but it never happens. He has improved since his rookie year, plus he’s as good as advertised defensively. There’s something missing to his game on the offensive end that we just haven’t seen yet. We may never see it – but if we do, it might not be with Orlando.
Andrew Wiggins, No. 1
Lastly, there’s Andrew Wiggins, who was just too difficult to determine where he fits under. Needless to say, he’s put up good numbers since entering the league. And those numbers were clearly good enough to earn him a nice payday. Since then, that contract has been labeled as one of the worst in the league. Wiggins is still in his mid-20’s, and now that he has a lesser role in Golden State, there could still be time for him to find himself. For now, he’s undetermined.
Ultimately, the funky turn out from this particular draft goes to show that no matter how much excitement a class of rookies can get, it’s impossible to draw big-time conclusions until some time down the road. Maybe we should consider that before the next class that comes as hyped as the 2014 NBA Draft.
But it might be a while before we see something like that again.
NBA Daily: Jonas Valanciunas Spearheading Grizzlies’ Growth
Jaren Jackson Jr. made his debut last night after missing the first 56 games of the season. Still, the Memphis Grizzlies have stockpiled wins without their second-best player, thanks in large part to the strong play of Jonas Valanciunas.
With less than a month remaining in the regular season, the playoff races are heating up. The new play-in tournament will allow more teams into the thick of things as the season winds down. One team looking to make a return to postseason play is the Memphis Grizzlies, led by dynamic point guard Ja Morant. Memphis currently owns the eighth spot in the Western Conference, thanks to excellent team basketball.
Morant may be the face of the franchise, but he has had a minor sophomore slump this season. His shooting percentages are down across the board, which include 74 percent from the free-throw line and 27 percent from behind the three-point line. Like most everyone in the league this year, he has missed a handful of games that have prevented him from getting into the type of rhythm that he would like.
Memphis is the true definition of the word “team” as they have collected wins with a well-balanced attack. They don’t have one or two superstar players that carry them on a nightly basis. They don’t rely on that which either, which makes things difficult for the opponent as they prepare their defensive strategies. The Grizzlies are difficult to game plan for, which is a credit to their unselfish play.
Contributions have come from everyone on the roster, from top to bottom. Kyle Anderson has been a perfect fit in Memphis. Dillon Brooks is seemingly unstoppable when he gets going. Brandon Clarke continues to impress and Grayson Allen has been a revelation for this team. It doesn’t stop there either. De’Anthony Melton, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman have been excellent additions by the front office and the continued development of Tyus Jones has been crucial to lessening the load on Morant.
The real surprise has come at the center position. Memphis was supposed to be a two-headed monster with the young duo of Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. The fourth-overall pick in the 2018 draft finally made his season debut last night against the Los Angeles Clippers, which makes what Memphis is doing even more impressive.
With Jackson sidelined for essentially the entire season, the only other center on the roster is Jonas Valanciunas. Memphis was concerned about having the veteran big man shoulder too much of the load, but he has delivered on a nightly basis. The nine-year vet is having a career year in Memphis. Unfortunately, the team announced on Sunday that he would miss some time due to a concussion.
Not only has the Lithuanian produced some incredible numbers so far this season, but he has also been a key cog to the Grizzlies’ winning ways. Valanciunas has a PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 24.13 which ranks 18th in the league among all players. That is a remarkable accomplishment for a center in today’s game.
The rebounding numbers alone are quite impressive. Valanciunas has essentially led the team in that department each game and has done it by a wide margin. He currently ranks third in the league in rebounds, behind only Clint Capela and Rudy Gobert.
Over the last 30 days, Jonas Valančiūnas leads the NBA in rebounding, averaging 14.5 RPG
Among players averaging at least 10 RPG in that span, only Towns, Giannis, Westbrook, Jokic, Vucevic, and Porzingis are averaging more points than Valančiūnas’s 18.2 per game pic.twitter.com/dx13yuhHbv
— Basketball Reference (@bball_ref) April 12, 2021
Valanciunas has 40 double-doubles this season in his 50 games played. As of last week, the only players with more double-doubles this season were MVP front-runner Nikola Jokic and triple-double machine Russell Westbrook.
Valanciunas has been getting better as the season progresses. He averaged 15.0 rebounds per game in March. His numbers in April are a reflection of how well Memphis has been playing. He is averaging 20.6 points, 12.5 rebounds and 1.0 blocks per game this month. He is shooting 68 percent from the floor, 46 percent from three-point range and 86.2 percent from the free-throw line. His best game this month came against the Indiana Pacers when he poured in 34 points and grabbed 22 rebounds.
No @NBA player has more point-rebound double-doubles this season than Jonas Valančiūnas (40).@JValanciunas‘ 40th double-double, recorded tonight, represents a new single-season career high (39 in 2019-20). pic.twitter.com/xIeYUzlZD5
— Grizzlies PR (@GrizzliesPR) April 15, 2021
Before Valanciunas went out with a concussion, the Grizzlies had won seven of their last ten games. They are now 0-2 without him but the losses weren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. They came up short in an overtime game against a red-hot New York Knicks team, then lost to the Dallas Mavericks on a ridiculous floating three-pointer by Luka Doncic. On Monday they fell two points short in a double-overtime thriller in Denver against the Nuggets. Without JV on the floor, Jokic erupted with 47 points, 15 rebounds and 8 assists.
Sharing the ball has been a constant theme for this young Memphis team. Only the Golden State Warriors average more assists per game as a team. The Grizzlies also lead the league in steals per game, which is a testament to their effort on the defensive end of the floor.
Taylor Jenkins deserves much of the credit in Memphis, though he doesn’t want the spotlight. The second-year head coach has the Grizzlies playing elite defense despite being one of the faster teams in terms of pace of play. Their defensive rating ranks seventh in the league while also boasting the 11th best net rating. The road ahead doesn’t get much easier for them though.
Memphis is in the middle of a brutal seven-game road trip. It started well for them, with wins over the Chicago Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks. After the double-overtime loss in Denver, they beat the Clippers in Jackson’s season debut and now head to Portland for two games against the Trail Blazers. Their road trip wraps up with another visit to Denver before facing Portland for the third time in six days.
The last time Memphis made the playoffs was during the 2016-17 season. Along with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, that roster included players like Tony Allen, Vince Carter, Chandler Parsons, Brandan Wright and Zach Randolph. This Grizzlies team may not have the same level of veterans, but their talent runs extremely deep.
Adding Jackson back into the fold should give Memphis a potent punch heading into the postseason. With Valanciunas now missing games, Jackson should have the opportunity to shake off the rust. While they aren’t heading to the NBA Finals this season, this is a scary Grizzlies team that can derail the hopes of a championship contender in the West.
NBA Daily: Is Stephen Curry the MVP?
Given the prolific season Stephen Curry is having, despite the Golden State Warriors being ninth in the Western Conference, does his impact make him the Most Valuable Player in the NBA this season?
In the aftermath of Klay Thompson suffering an Achilles tear that ended his season before it began, no one would have blamed Stephen Curry for prioritizing his preservation through the 2020-21 campaign.
Instead, despite the Golden State Warriors lacking the necessary talent to become a title contender, Curry’s doing everything in his power to get them into the playoffs.
The two-time league MVP is on pace to win the scoring title for the second time in his career. In a recent road loss against the Boston Celtics, Curry put up 47 points, becoming the second player in Warriors history to score 30 or more points in 10-straight games, joining Wilt Chamberlain.
In his last 11 contests, Curry’s averaging 40 points on shooting splits that aren’t supposed to be possible at the game’s highest level. Even though he’s hoisting 14.3 attempts from beyond the arc per game, he’s making them at a 49.7 percent clip. He’s taking 23.4 shots from the field but still seeing the ball go through the hoop 54.1 percent of the time.
The context of how Curry’s producing those prodigious numbers makes them even more impressive. He is the only scoring threat on Golden State who defenses need to concern themselves with — stop Curry, win the game; it’s that simple, at least in theory it is.
Another layer of what makes Curry’s prolific scoring so impressive is the energy he’s exerting to do so. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Curry’s running 1.43 miles per game on offense, which is the sixth-most league-wide. And what that figure doesn’t fully capture is that while Curry has a lightning-quick release and is masterful at creating the sliver of daylight he needs to get his shot off, it takes a significant amount of energy to do that once, let alone throughout a game.
Even though Curry’s already the greatest shooter of all time, he’s taken the most lethal part of his game to new heights. From 2015 when the Warriors won their first NBA championship to 2019, a stretch in which they reached the finals every year, step-back threes accounted for just eight percent of Curry’s shooting profile from beyond the arc. But this season, Curry knew it would be more challenging to create shots for himself, which is why he’s doubled that figure to 16 percent and he’s knocking down 51.5 percent of his step-back threes, per NBA.com.
Curry’s also putting more pressure on opponents from further away from the hoop than he has in years past. According to NBA.com, from 2015 through 2019, five percent of his threes came from 30 to 40 feet. This season, shots from that distance account for 10 percent of his three-point attempts. Just like when defenses double team him out of a pick-and-roll, Curry forcing teams to defend him from further out is another way for him to create 4-3 opportunities for his teammates.
After that loss against the Celtics, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said Curry’s “at the peak of his powers.” Though he’s not just putting his talents towards individual production, he is the primary reason Golden State’s firmly in the play-in tournament. The Warriors currently reside ninth in the Western Conference. They’re one game behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and two back of the seventh-ranked Dallas Mavericks.
As impressive an individual season as Curry’s having and as vital as he’s been to his team’s success this season, the reality is the Warriors haven’t won at a high enough level for him to win Most Valuable Player honors for the third time in his career. Currently, Nikola Jokic is the leading MVP candidate. While it’s fair to point out the Denver Nuggets aren’t even in the top three in the Western Conference, Jokic ranks first in player efficiency rating, win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He’s averaging 26.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game.
If Jokic misses enough of Denver’s remaining games, someone could usurp him for the right to win MVP. In that scenario, Curry would have a chance to become the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for a third time, but he’d have to sway voters from giving it to Joel Embiid. Embiid’s in the midst of a career season, ranking second in player efficiency rating, eighth in win shares and fourth in box plus/minus. He’s averaging 29.9 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference.
Curry ranks sixth in player efficiency rating, seventh in win shares and is second in both box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He has a case for MVP, but Jokic and Embiid are capping off career seasons while leading their respective teams to a higher level of success. Yes, their teams are more talented and there probably isn’t enough weight put on how valuable an individual is to his team, but the reality is the MVP typically goes to the best player on a top team. Furthermore, that argument also applies to Jokic, who’s the lone All-Star on a team with a better record.
Not naming Curry this season’s Most Valuable Player doesn’t mean his prolific production isn’t appreciated. Nor should it get taken as a sign elevating his team, somehow finding ways to become a more dangerous shooter and investing as much energy as he has into a season that won’t end with a championship isn’t garnering respect from the NBA community. That includes fans whose favorite team doesn’t reside in the Bay Area.
NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Path Back to the NBA Finals
In the wake of Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Bobby Krivitsky examines the Los Angeles Lakers’ path back to the NBA Finals.
It’s been 15 games since a high ankle sprain sidelined LeBron James.
With the Western Conference standings congested and Anthony Davis already out due to a right calf strain and a re-aggravation of his right Achilles tendinosis, the Los Angeles Lakers faced the threat of a fall that would require their participation in the play-in tournament.
However, the Lakers have fought admirably in the absence of their two stars, going seven and eight. As a result, their fall in the standings has been painless, going from third at the time of James’ injury to now occupying fifth place in the West.
The primary reason the Lakers have been able to tread water without their two stars is they’ve remained stingy on defense. Since James’ injury, they have the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. That’s despite facing four teams who rank in the top five in offensive rating and six of the categories’ top-10 members.
Right now, the Lakers are 2.5 games ahead of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, with a 4.5-game cushion between them and the Dallas Mavericks, who are seventh in the conference. That should be a large enough gap to keep Los Angeles out of the play-in tournament, but the two teams are going to converge for a two-game series starting Thursday. For the Lakers, getting swept would re-open the possibility of having to compete in the play-in tournament.
Fortunately for them, even splitting that series would make it unlikely the Mavericks finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings. And help might be on the way for the Lakers: Davis may soon rejoin the lineup, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, meaning there’s a distinct possibility he’s active for at least one of those two matchups. As for James, he’s on track to return in three weeks.
While Los Angeles’ stars are getting closer to making their returns, the Denver Nuggets got dealt a more severe blow when Jamal Murray tore his ACL in a recent game against the Golden State Warriors. Denver is 10-2 since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and looked the part of a legitimate title contender prior to Murray’s injury.
Denver is fourth in the West, 1.5 games ahead of Los Angeles. But even if the Nuggets have home-court advantage, they’re the preferable opening-round opponent, not just for Los Angeles, but any team with a legitimate chance at the fourth or fifth seed.
Fortunately for the Lakers, that’s the place in the Western Conference pecking order where they’re most likely to finish this season. So long as the Nuggets don’t freefall in Murray’s absence, Los Angeles will likely start the playoffs against an opponent that’s gone from having the potential to present the greatest challenge to the defending champions’ quest to get back to the Finals to becoming a desirable first-round matchup.
After that, the Lakers may have to get past the Utah Jazz and or the Los Angeles Clippers to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. The former has the best record in the league this season, but locking horns with the defending champions in a best of seven series is a far more challenging and potentially rewarding proving ground.
The Jazz have a deep, reliable rotation, they have the best net rating in the NBA, they’re in the top five in points for and against per 100 possessions, and they’re attempting the most threes per game, but also rank in the top five in three-point shooting percentage. However, the Lakers would have the two best players in a series against Utah. Usually, an opponent doesn’t overcome that disadvantage.
As for the Clippers, Rajon Rondo has quickly proven to be an impactful acquisition. Los Angeles is seven and one with him in the lineup, generating the highest net rating in the league during that span. Last season, the Lakers saw first-hand how impactful playoff Rondo can be. Now, the Clippers are hoping he can bring structure to their offense, something they sorely lacked last postseason and was at the forefront of them blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets. Doing so would go a long way towards maximizing the production of a team that has the talent to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in franchise history.
If this is the year the battle of LA takes place in the postseason, it figures to be a slugfest. Still, the Clippers have their doubters after last year’s meltdown in the playoffs. There’s also a large contingency who are skeptical about how far the Jazz can go in the postseason, given their lack of a top-tier superstar. Despite the validity of those concerns, both teams can beat the Lakers in a best of seven series. That no longer appears to be the case for the Nuggets, which is a shame for them and people who want to see the best possible matchups in the playoffs. But Murray’s injury, as unfortunate an occurrence as it is, makes it easier for the Lakers to get through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference and have a chance to claim an 18th championship, which would break their tie with the Boston Celtics for the most titles in NBA history.
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